Growing up, I thought, as many of you might, that kraut was just the limp, pale yellow stuff other people sometimes put on hotdogs. Indeed, vacuum-packed or canned and full of vinegar and additives, much commercial kraut really is that bad.
It wasn’t until 2006, when I had the opportunity to start up an artisanal pickle business in New England, that I came to experience real sauerkraut—the kind that zings and pops with flavor and improves almost any meal, the kind that fueled the ravaging hoards of Genghis Kahn on his rampage across the steppes of Asia.
On my path to becoming a pickler, I had an amazing opportunity to visit, volunteer with and consult with several master picklers on the East Coast. I think it was Seth, the lead pickler at Hawthorne Valley, who first offered me the experience of live-culture, crunchy, tangy kraut that exploded in my mouth like health in one bite.
Kraut that has been naturally fermented and not sterilized is full of probiotics, which are said to support a healthy immune system and help you get the most nutrients out of your food. From the ancient Romans to the arctic explorer James Cook, people have used kraut as a means of staving off scurvy, due to its high vitamin C content.
Before the advent of refrigeration, a good barrel of kraut could make the difference between life and death for folks in cold climates. People would put up their kraut in the fall and eat from it all winter and spring until it was summer and there was more food growing in the fields.
Today, the trend of small-batch, live-culture kraut seems to be catching on all over the country. In Baltimore, Hex Ferments is doing a brisk business with its gourmet ferments, as is Number 1 Sons in the DC area. As people discover the health benefits and amazing zing of real, live kraut, there is much greater demand for it as well as a new proliferation of regional, artisanal fermenters.
While it is great to have high-quality, well-fermented products to splurge on when needed, for me, one of the chief pleasures of a good kraut is in making it myself.
How To Make Great Sauerkraut
The best time to make kraut, I won’t lie to you, is in the fall. Cabbages that have seen a frost while still out in the fields get sweeter, and that sweetness carries on into the finished tang. However, don’t let the fact that it’s now spring stop you. Any time you have access to a cabbage and a room temperature environment is a good time to make kraut.
One of the things I love most about lacto-fermentation (the process used to make sauerkraut) is that anyone can do it, just about anywhere, with very inexpensive resources and little training…and then you can spend your lifetime mastering it.
Container: You can ferment kraut in just about anything. The easiest vessel to start with is a half-gallon mason jar. Lots of people will use a quart jar, but I am convinced that the larger a batch of kraut you make, the better the final product. Thirty- and 50-gallon barrels make great kraut. Pint jars are a waste of time. Nice ceramic crocks are great, but they tend to be expensive and heavy to move and wash. If you really get into it, a five-gallon bucket is a good size for a family-scale amount of kraut.
Ingredients: Kraut has only two ingredients: cabbage and salt (although there are lots of fun things that you can add to make it special, like hot peppers, dill, garlic, caraway seeds and juniper, to name a few). Hence, the salt does matter. You want a coarse salt that has no chemicals, flow agents or preservatives. Under ingredients, it should just say Salt. Coarse, grey, Atlantic sea salt is one of my favorites; pink Himalayan rock salt is nice; cheap kosher salt at the supermarket works just fine.
Shredding: Remove the outer leaves of your cabbage (the ones you wouldn’t eat), but wash and save them—they will come in handy at the end. People have all different preferences for how they chop their cabbage. I like a quarter-width slice, and I am happy to use a shredder if I have access to one.
Weighing: Shred your cabbage; then weigh it. If you don’t have a scale, weigh it at the market and estimate based on how many outer leaves you remove.
Salting: Once your cabbage is shredded and weighed, put it in a big bowl and sprinkle two tablespoons of salt on for every five pounds of shredded cabbage. Stir it all around. Now go away, and leave it for a few hours or overnight. This allows the salt to begin softening the cabbage and drawing out the brine.
Packing: Once you’ve come back to it, start stuffing your salted cabbage into your jar (or other vessel). Use your hands, ideally with disposable gloves on, to fill the jar and then begin packing and smushing down the cabbage. You should see liquid collecting in the jar.
This is important as the lactobacillus, the beneficial microorganisms we are seeking to cultivate, don’t like air! By packing the cabbage tightly you avoid air pockets, which could make your kraut go bad. Continue smushing in the cabbage until the jar is full and the liquid comes over the top of the cabbage when you push it down.
Now take all those ugly leaves you peeled off your cabbage before you shredded it and begin packing them, whole, into the mouth of the jar. Use the neck of the jar to lodge them under. Your goal is to make sure the shredded stuff stays under the liquid at all times.
Once you have packed it as tightly as you can and you see liquid at the surface, cover your jar or crock loosely, either with the lid or with a towel and rubber band. Don’t cover it too tightly as a by-product of lacto-fermentation is carbon dioxide and with a tight lid and a large vessel…you could be looking at a serious mess.
Fermenting: Now…wait two to three months!
Really, you have to just about forget about it. I know people who ferment kraut for three weeks and say it’s done. The masters stick with three months. Personally, I like the fresh cabbage flavor to be completely absent and the experience of crunching the kraut to release an explosion of sour flavor in my mouth.
Note: the fermentation must take place between 60 and 80 degrees (room temperature in a temperate place). Your vessel should not be in the sun much, if at all. It’s fine at the back of your counter or in your pantry. Every few weeks, you can use tongs to navigate your way into the interior and bring out a bit to taste.
If you get mold on top just scrape it off; it isn’t hurting anyone.
Finishing: Now to the fun part: when you have determined that your kraut is ready, pull out all the ugly topper leaves and about one to two inches off the top of your shredded product, and put it in the compost. You’ll notice a change in the color and texture where the shredded stuff has been sufficiently protected from the air and is crisp as opposed to mushy. The cabbage at the top inevitably gets some air and hence rots instead of fermenting—this is why a larger vessel results in a better product.
Once you have thrown away everything nasty, fork out the good stuff into a clean jar. When you pack it into the clean jar, make sure there is enough liquid in the jar to cover the kraut. Now put it in the fridge. This brings the temperature down to 38 degrees, which makes our little lactobacillus friends go dormant. It also makes it crunchier, tangier and more delicious. You can keep the kraut in your fridge for up to a year, although it may continue to ferment very slowly.
Serve your kraut with spicy Asian food, meats, eggs, cheese and fruit, on sandwiches, as a side dish…or just eat it plain!